A Conversation with Vincent Valdez

Want to know more about the artists behind the dazzling prints in Estampas de la raza? Exhibition curator Jennifer Dasal spoke with some of the featured artists about their work, their inspirations, and their experiences.

First up: Vincent Valdez.

Vincent Valdez, Suspect: Dark Clothes, Dark Hair, Dark Eyes, Dark Skin, 2002, screen print, 22 x 16 ¼ in., Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Gift of Harriett and Ricardo Romo, 2010.95, © 2013 Vincent Valdez

Jennifer Dasal: This exhibition zeroes in on contemporary prints created by Latino and Hispanic artists. How do you define your own unique cultural heritage?

Vincent Valdez: I am a third-generation American born of distant Mexican and Spanish descent. I acknowledge and respect the cultural and political struggles of the Chicano movement that came before me, but I [believe] the proper term for me is “Hispanic.” Perhaps I no longer relate to any of these, or perhaps I am all of the above. Such is the never-ending dilemma of the Mexican American.

JD: What is it about printmaking that makes it so conducive to portraying the larger issues of struggle, traditions, identity, and so forth?

VV: Printmaking is such a raw form of communication and protest. It is grassroots and has been a very, very important way of communicating to the masses throughout world history. It can be produced in one’s kitchen or in a professional studio. It is accessible, and it allows the artist to mass produce images rapidly. The effectiveness of mass communication and information through printmaking was quickly realized and adapted by the business and advertising worlds for different purposes.

JD: What makes a work of art specifically Chicano, Latino, Hispanic, etc.? Is it simply the cultural makeup of the artist who created it, or is it something more?

VV: The cultural makeup of the artist is not reason enough to label art as Chicano, Hispanic, etc.

Some artists specifically state that their work is a continuation of the Chicano art movement. Some artists state that their work is a celebration of their culture, family, or community and focus on traditionally based imagery of the genre. But what happens when an American-born artist who happens to be Mexican refuses to be labeled with any identity at all? For example, I recently completed a series of paintings titled “The Strangest Fruit.” It is based after the almost entirely unknown and unrecognized history of lynchings of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the United States. Although based off of a historical event, each of the works displays a contorted contemporary brown male body wearing disheveled denim jeans, Nikes, hoodies, NBA apparel, etc. The noose, once a powerful and violent American symbol, is now just as prevalent as ever in unspoken terms such as mass incarceration, poverty, the war on drugs, military wars, immigration, etc. To me, these images are all very American before they are ever Mexican or Chicano only.

Historically speaking, it may have been easier to look at a piece by a “cultural” artist and identify it as such because of the foreign imagery displayed. But now, this is becoming more complicated because of the infinite possibilities and experiences that “Latino” artists can present their work in. How could we term a painting of minimalist dots on canvas as Chicano art simply because the [artist’s] last name ends in “-ez”? I feel strongly that many young Latino artists are now attempting to breach these very rigid borders that have been established not only by mainstream society but also by the contemporary art world. So, essentially, it should be the artist who gets to decide what cultural context or category to place the work in.

JD: What artistic traditions or histories are you pulling from in your works, if any?

VV: I focus primarily on the tradition of painting and drawing, usually executed on a monumental scale. I have now started to experiment with film and three-dimensional drawings. There are numerous influences on my work: the world around me, video games, cinema, historical political posters, the endless myths and illusions of heroes throughout time, contemporary America … In terms of specific artists whose work inspires me the most: Phillip Guston, Peter Saul, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Kathe Kollwitz, Vija Celmins , Paula Rego, Paul Cadmus, and Ben Shahn. Almost all of which were or are very important printmakers during their careers.

The political content of the Chicano art movement played a huge role for inspiring me during my teenage years. I started off as a muralist as a young child, in love with the Mexican muralists, the East L.A. muralists in the 1970–’80s, and with my books of the WPA artists in the 1940s. Films left a deep impression on my awareness of images conveying messages to the masses on a monumental scale. I have never really abandoned these early influences.

JD: How did you begin your career as a printmaker? What drew you (or still draws you) toward printmaking?

VV: Yo Soy-ee Blaxican [in the exhibition] was my first time ever printing. I was fresh out of Rhode Island School of Design and had an opportunity to try my hand at lithography. I was hooked. It’s a very tedious and somewhat complicated process, but with such rewarding results. I continue to create new editions of lithographs and serigraphs every year. Because I tend to work on a massive scale, it really provides me with the opportunity to work on an intimate scale with quicker production turnarounds. I’ve always tended to approach printmaking with a willingness to experiment and aim for different results than I would get from a charcoal drawing or oil painting.

JD: What is something special that viewers might miss about your work, or something they might not immediately see

VV: John is one of the works I have in the exhibition. John Holt Jr. was my best friend since the age of 9. He was a combat medic in Iraq and died in 2010. This portrait is based off of the last time that I saw him, at his mother’s house in San Antonio while he was on leave. He was dressed in full combat gear for a photo shoot that I was doing [with him]. He displayed this expression when I asked him about his experiences in Iraq. Using the title John commemorates him but also signifies the usage of the term “John Doe.” He is the endless numbers of soldiers who have walked in his boots.

Yo Soy-ee Blaxican [I am Blaxican] is a portrait of my younger brother Daniel. He coined this term when I asked him how he identified himself. He refused the labels Chicano, Hispanic, Mexican, or Latino, and gave the title as a response in homage to the death of Tupac Shakur. The image depicts the “New Skool” generation: from the barrio but trying to leave it behind, [wearing] hip-hop gear [that] signifies he identifies more with black culture than his own, and the golden arches from McDonald’s defines the modern American landscape. He is a product of his environment but also of the history that came before him. Reinventing his identity ironically carries on the Chicano history, as it imitates the same need for self-identity and proclamation of existence.

JD: What was the most fulfilling or unexpected aspect of your experience as a part of Estampas de la raza?

VV: The exhibition covers a span of two or three generations of printmakers, so it’s interesting to identify how the content and techniques over a few decades relate, differ, and are evolved.

JD: What is it about this exhibition that is important to you? Why is a show like this so necessary?

VV: This exhibition provides insight into the legacy of printmaking. It shows that it is alive and well and relevant. It also provides an audience with an educational aspect of the legacy of Chicano printmaking for social and political purposes and awareness. Above all it helps to further the notion that Mexican Americans and Chicanos share the same qualities as all other Americans do, for change, for equality, for protest, for love of family and community, for pride and hope, and for the experience of being American.

Next, Jennifer Dasal talks with artist Oscar Magallanes.

The NCMA’s Monuments Men

The current film The Monuments Men, largely based on the books of Robert Edsel, is bringing new attention to a little-known aspect of World War II when extraordinary art was stolen, hidden away, and even destroyed on a massive scale. Regardless of the critical response to the film, the actual Monuments Men were indisputably successful, and like so many art collections around the world, our NCMA is better for their efforts.

From the beginning of the war, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis implemented a systematic plan to acquire the best art in Europe, specifically for the future Führermuseum or Leader’s Museum in Hitler’s hometown of Linz, Austria. They targeted masterpieces in all the major museums and collections in Europe. Thousands of German soldiers were put to the job, locating and confiscating millions of pieces of art. Much of the best work, mainly Old Masters, ended up in the personal collections of Hitler, his right-hand man Hermann Goering, and other members of the Nazi elite. Their plan also included the destruction of what they considered “degenerate” art, which encompassed virtually all modern art such as that of Picasso, Dali, Matisse, Van Gogh, and German artists such as Ernst, Klee, Nolde, and Kirchner. Much art was destroyed, but, ironically, the more valuable “degenerate” works were kept by the Nazis for their collections or were sold outside of Germany for personal gain.

A perfect example of the art they coveted can be found at the NCMA in Madonna and Child in a Landscape by Lucas Cranach the Elder, circa 1518. The German Old Master’s work was highly valued. In 1940 the painting was stolen from Philipp von Gomperz, a Jewish collector in Vienna, and ended up in the possession of Baldur von Schirach, wartime governor of Vienna and leader of the Hitler Youth. After the war the painting was sold on the art market, unrecognized for its past, and was eventually donated to the NCMA. After the full history of the painting was revealed in 2000, the NCMA formally purchased the painting from Gomperz’s descendants.

The Monuments, Fine Art, and Archives program (MFAA), or “Monuments Men,” was created in the last years of World War II. It was a special unit tasked with identifying cultural treasures in the war zone and protecting them. As the war ended, the MFAA’s work turned to identifying stolen art and returning it to its rightful owners if possible. Initially the group was small, less than a dozen men, but ultimately 345 men and women from 13 countries served in the MFAA for up to six years. Most of them were volunteers and far older than the average enlisted person. Museum directors, curators, historians, artists, and conservators were tasked with no less than preserving the world’s artistic cultural heritage, something no army had done before on that scale.

In the end the MFAA saved untold numbers of churches, historic buildings, and monuments from destruction; restituted 5 million works of art including works by Michelangelo, Vermeer, and Leonardo da Vinci; and were instrumental in reestablishing the cultural life of Europe. Their work continues to enrich us today.

One painting at the NCMA is known to have passed through the hands of the MFAA. Our St. Leonard (German, Circle of Pleydenwurff, circa 1460, currently not on view) was stolen from a collector in Paris and appropriated by Hermann Goering. Near the end of the war, the MFAA removed it from Goering’s Veldenstein Castle and sent it on to the Munich Central Collecting Point, one of two main distribution centers for art restitution. The painting was returned to Paris in 1947. A decade later it was purchased for the Kress Collection and subsequently donated to the NCMA.

Records show that the NCMA’s painting Young Man with a Sword (Dutch, Circle of Rembrandt, circa 1633–45) was restituted through the Stichting Nederlandsch Kunstbezit (SNK), the Netherlands’ version of the MFAA. The SNK and MFAA were close collaborators. The painting was later purchased by Kress and donated to the NCMA.

Practically every major museum in Europe and the U.S. has similar stories. But as extraordinary as the MFAA’s achievements were, an untold amount of art escaped their effort. Certainly some art was destroyed, purposefully or as collateral damage of war. Like our Cranach, some works were stolen and hidden or sold. Surprisingly, art continues to come to light, such as the nearly 1,400 works discovered in 2012 in a Munich apartment.

But the contributions of the Monuments Men didn’t end with the war. Many went on to long careers, and a few helped create the modern museum as we know it. As an art conservator, I’m especially interested in two of them:

George Stout is the basis for George Clooney’s character in the movie. Essentially the MFAA sprang from Stout’s efforts, and he’s probably the one person who should get the most credit for it. But Stout was first a pioneer in the museum world, establishing the first science-based art conservation research facility in the U.S. at Harvard’s Fogg Museum. After the war he was founding president of the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, creating the foundation of modern conservation in this country.

Certainly the conservation center at the NCMA is built on the work of George Stout, but a more direct link is through Monuments Man Sheldon Keck. To me Keck is the grandfather of modern conservation in the U.S., and his wife, Caroline, is the grandmother, a huge figure in American conservation in her own right. NCMA conservators Bill Brown, Noelle Ocon, and I are all products of their work.

Sheldon Keck graduated from Harvard in 1932 and served a conservation apprenticeship at the Fogg, no doubt under Stout’s eye. Keck joined the army in 1943 and was assigned to the MFAA. A letter to his wife on September 19, 1944, from “Somewhere in France” suggests that things started off slowly:

“Still know nothing about Arts & Monument and expect nothing. Don’t even believe the army knows that I’m supposed to be in it as I have been classified as a clerk since I left the States.”

His time with arts and monuments did come. He was with Stout in the first small group of the MFAA that followed the D-Day invasion of 1944 through France, Holland, and Belgium and into Germany. Unfortunately, at one point Keck and close friend Walter Huchthausen unwittingly drove their jeep behind enemy lines while pursuing an altarpiece that had been removed from a German town. Huchthausen was shot and killed, one of only two Monuments Men to die in action. In the movie the death of fictional French character Jean Claude Clermont (actor Jean Dujardin) is based on this incident. Later in life Keck rarely talked about the war; I assume that, as with many WWII vets, he simply found it too painful to relive.

After the war Sheldon and Caroline founded two of the three conservation training programs in the U.S. First Sheldon started the program at New York University, the first graduate-level conservation training program in the U.S. A few years later he started a conservation program for the State University of New York in Cooperstown, which subsequently relocated to Buffalo, N.Y. Bill Brown and Noelle Ocon are graduates of that program. I’ve worked with numerous people trained by the Kecks, including their son Larry Keck. I met Sheldon on several occasions. His calm, confident demeanor and approach to conservation is one I’ve always tried to emulate.

Is The Monuments Men a good film? I certainly enjoyed it, but then I love art and history and had a personal connection through Sheldon Keck. The movie has great actors and is loosely based on the facts. The actual Monuments Men were personally committed to the preservation of art before, during, and after the war. They felt they were simply doing their duty, were incredibly humble, and returned to their normal lives without much fanfare. Seventy years later we have nearly forgotten what they did for us. The movie and the growing number of books on the subject serve to remind us of their extraordinary achievements and the gratitude we should have for them.

Perry Hurt is associate conservator at the NCMA.

Recipe: Sweet Potato Scallion Biscuits

A recipe from Jennifer Armstrong Hicks, pastry chef at the NCMA’s Iris restaurant

Jen notes: “This savory biscuit is the base of our famous Oak City Benedict. Since ramps are coming into season (and they’re so fleeting), it might be fun to use those in place of the scallions if you can come by them.”

Makes about 12 large biscuits

2 ½ cups All-purpose flour

4 ½ tsp. Baking powder

¾ tsp. Kosher salt

¼ tsp. Black pepper

1½ sticks Unsalted butter

¼ cup Finely chopped scallions

¾ cup Roasted and pureed sweet potato (about 1 medium)

¾ cup Buttermilk (use more as needed)

  1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
  2. Bake, peel, and puree the sweet potato, and set aside to cool.
  3. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and pepper. Pulse to combine.
  4. Chop the butter into about 12 pieces and add to the flour mixture. Pulse until the butter is still visible (pea-sized).
  5. Turn the mixture into a large bowl with room to mix by hand. Make a well in the center and add the buttermilk, sweet potato, and scallions. Gently mix by hand (or with a wooden spoon) until the mixture is all slightly moistened (don’t overmix!).
  6. Turn the dough out onto a generously floured countertop and shape into a rectangle (about 1½ inches thick) with the short end facing you. Fold the dough in thirds (like a letter), make a 90 degree turn, and press out into your rectangle again. Repeat folding in thirds. Repeat process one more time, redust countertop with flour, and roll dough out evenly until about 1 inch thick.
  7. Cut with a biscuit cutter. Place biscuits on parchment-lined sheet pans about 1 inch apart.
  8. Bake in the top third of the oven at 375°F until the biscuits are puffed, golden, and baked through (about 10–15 minutes). Remove and cool slightly before consuming.

Enjoy!

Check out the spring 2014 menus at Iris for brunch, lunch, and dinner. For the latest news from the Museum, sign up for our e-newsletters.

Where Did Bacchus Go?

Those of you who love to stroll through the Flemish Kunstkamer (art room) in West Building will undoubtedly have noticed that the marble statue of Bacchus was nowhere to be seen on your recent visit. Where did Bacchus go? Not too far, actually. Bacchus took a stroll of his own down to the conservation lab for the makeover of the century. Let me tell you why.

Bacchus as he came to the Museum

Bacchus was accessioned into the Museum collection in 1958—when he had a head on top of his finely muscled body. However, it was soon learned that this sculpture of Bacchus was a composite of ancient parts assembled together with more recent additions. In such cases composite sculptures are sometimes dismantled to remove the ancient components from the later additions and display them separately (while often discarding the later additions).

Head of Bacchus

Thus, in the ’80s, Bacchus’s head was removed from the rest of sculpture and displayed by itself in the galleries. The Head of Bacchus is currently on view in West Building. It’s also on one of the NCMA banners at Crabtree Valley Mall. This head is a genuine Roman antiquity, and it was once part of an ancient statue of Bacchus, now lost.

As for the body, it was relegated to storage because it was not as elegant as the classical sculptures already in the collection. The superbly chiseled torso is also a genuine Roman antiquity of a rare type, but the legs, left arm, base, and that weird-looking tree trunk are actually baroque additions. (Plus, it does not even represent Bacchus!) NCMA curators and conservators have known this since the early ’60s. Unfortunately, when the head was removed in the ’80s, the Museum did not have the means or the technology to take the sculpture apart any further. And so it was in storage that “Bacchus” languished until he was rescued by Dutch and Flemish art curator Dennis Weller in 2002 and displayed in the Kunstkamer.

(Fast forward to 2013)
After having completed and published the research on the Egyptian collection (2012), I decided the classical collection was to be the object of scholarly research, a new project that started in 2013. Rather than attempting this on my own (I am an Egyptologist, after all), I am bringing in classical art experts in various fields to study our objects. The first consultant was Mark Abbe (assistant professor at the University of Georgia, Athens), whose expertise is Roman marbles. Mark visited in June 2013 to do a detailed visual examination of all our ancient marbles and (oddly enough) he spent an inordinate amount of time in the Kunstkamer—he found Bacchus utterly fascinating.

Mark Abbe at work

As we worked together through the curatorial and conservation files and discussed the works of art, we came across a letter in the Bacchus file dated 1962 from former NCMA Director Justus Bier that said: “I feel we might leave the problem of disassembling it to some future generation, rather than attempting it now.” Mark and I looked at each other. We talked to Dennis as well as conservator Noelle Ocon (who’s working on the classical catalogue research project with me). Now, I’m pretty certain you have an idea why Bacchus was moved to the conservation lab …

We’re the future generation. And we’re taking Bacchus apart.

(Stay tuned for more blog posts regarding the ongoing research on the classical collection and the “Bacchus Deconstruction Project.”)

The Sounds of Silents

On February 15 I accompanied Champagne, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, at the Detroit Film Theater, so it might be a good time to try to set down the experience of what it’s like to accompany a silent picture while the impressions are fresh.

But first, here’s a giant oversimplification. If you start at middle C on the piano and count up the white and black keys until you reach the next C, you’ll find that there are 12 notes until the pattern of notes repeats. It’s not that it’s so hard to memorize 12 notes. It’s a matter of: is the note you want high, middle, or low; how fast is it traveling to the next note; what other notes are occurring at the same time, and how fast are the notes moving, and why? Is it a moment that’s totally improvised, or is it an actual song or piece? The experience morphs from one thing to the next.

When the experience is up and running, it’s mostly two things: strangely private and also self-conscious. Depending on where the piano is situated, once the lights go off, it’s just me and the movie. At the NCMA it’s more continuously self-conscious because the piano is on stage with the movie. At other venues the piano may be off to one side, or down in an orchestra pit, so that even though I can always be seen by the audience when they choose, the direction of my attention to the screen can exclude my perceiving the audience for a time after the start, and thus I experience the strange privacy in which I’m “locked in” to what a picture is. In some cases this can go on for practically the whole film. Yet I can “feel” and hear the audience.

It’s inevitable when playing for a picture to play “clinkers,” and I wonder if anyone recalls them or whether they just become absorbed and dismissed due to the duration. It’s most important for me to be careful near a picture’s ending, and so it becomes the area of greatest risk. Yet being reckless when playing the piano is a prime ingredient for me. It’s the “mystery note” that I’m after; the weird confluence of sound and events that I’m reaching for to hit the mark that’s so elusive. Naturally, the better the picture, the better the chance.

With a classic comedy, it’s so exhilarating to fly along on the big laughs. I love that! There’s nothing better than the big laughs, which seem never to fail in the great comedies.

I’ll always remember the “gasp” of the audience near the end of Pandora’s Box at Raleigh’s Rialto Theater, when Jack the Ripper drops his knife on the steps leading up to Louise Brooks’s attic hovel; the incredible rush of cheering near the end of The Man Who Laughs in 2009 at the NCMA; the amazing roars of laughter during the two shows of The General at the Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines—and I could go on and on. But most of all, since I love playing for the creative insanity of silent comedy, I’m looking forward to an exciting new experience coming up soon at the NCMA.

Guest blogger David Drazin is a pianist and composer who has acquired a national reputation for his piano improvisations accompanying silent films. He is a regular at the NCMA and on March 7 will accompany Two Tars and Three Ages in the Museum Auditorium.

I Remember Fireflies

We’ve had a seriously cold winter here—and nothing makes me yearn for summer weather more than that! Summertime brings many joys—fresh berries, long days, beach-perfect sunshine. For me, a transplanted West Coaster, there is one element of summer that never ceases to provide intense fascination and childlike glee: seeing fireflies (or lightning bugs, if you’re so inclined). Though my adult brain understands the scientific basis for their bioluminescence, I still consider them special—perhaps magical. I look forward to seeing them every year. In the meantime, I can enjoy them now—in winter!—in the Museum Park.

Houston-based artist Allison Hunter enjoys similar positive emotions toward fireflies, though hers are based in childhood memories. She recalls beach vacations spent watching fireflies as they soared around the sand dunes. “I remember fireflies lighting our path to the seawall at night. Their glowing nature was magical by itself, but combined with our reverie, the fireflies seemed fairylike.” These memories created a sense of longing in Hunter, who, as a Houstonite, rarely sees fireflies now. The urban sprawl and light pollution of large cities foils sightings of such creatures. Is it because of a depletion of habitat? Or is it that the city is too suffused with light to properly see them? Is it a combination?

Hunter’s new video installation in the Museum Park, I Remember Fireflies, reimagines the insects in an ideal environment—a safe habitat where they are able to go through their life cycles in peace. Hunter took a hands-on approach to the creation of her work, filming her “fireflies”—which are created with clay and jeweler’s wire—in stop-motion. The video installation, set inside a birdhouse situated with a glass peephole, seems familiar, yet strange. The video is set to the tune of Mildred Bailey’s 1940s standard “At Sundown.”

The dark environment and our human size (particularly in relation to the tiny insects) further obscure the creatures, a fact that is made more interesting given that we aren’t seeing actual, living fireflies. “The human tries to see but cannot see what is going on inside,” Hunter says. “The intimate life of insects remains a mystery.” And this mysterious nature is the essence of Hunter’s work. In sheltering and re-creating them to her own specifications, Hunter allows her fireflies to come to life in a safe way—anywhere and anytime, in any season and under any weather conditions. So at the NCMA, fireflies are not just for summer—now, they’ll be available for viewing all year round.

Photo caption: Allison Hunter, I Remember Fireflies, 2012, stop-motion animation video with sound,  mini-video projector, speaker, painted wood, clay and wire figures, LED lights, wire mesh, glass, dried leaves, and rear-screen projection material, Courtesy of the artist

Three New Judaic Acquisitions

In previous posts I reported on the Museum’s success at last April’s auction of the Steinhardt Judaica Collection. I then wrote about one of the three pieces acquired in that sale. The other two pieces deserve equal attention.

The first is an unusually large, elegantly proportioned and finely wrought silver filigree Spice Container in the form of a tower. Used in the Havdalah (or Separation) ceremony that marks the end of the Sabbath, spice containers are among the most ubiquitous of Jewish ceremonial objects. Filled with sweet herbs and spices such as cloves, they are sniffed during the ritual, though like many Jewish traditions, the reason for this is debated. One commonly repeated explanation is that smelling the spices expresses the hope that the sweetness of the Sabbath might carry through the week to come. However, our curatorial consultant Gabriel Goldstein notes an alternative theory: that the fragrant spices “are akin to smelling salts used to invigorate the individual, as at the moment of Havdalah there is a loss of a special extra soul or spirit that inhabits the body during the Sabbath.” Whatever the reason for its use, the spice container traditionally has been an essential part of the Jewish home. Unconstrained by religious law, artisans have interpreted spice containers in a wide variety of fanciful forms.

This spice container conforms to a traditional type of filigreed tower thought to have originated in the German states in the early 17th century and little changed in basic design over the next 300 years. It is thus difficult to accurately date these pieces or to identify their place of origin. At present all that can be said about this particular example is that its high degree of craftsmanship argues for an 18th- or early 19th-century date, and that it was likely made in Poland. Filigree is a metalsmithing technique using wire to create shapes and forms of often dazzling complexity. A special feature of this piece is the selective use of gilding to accent the architecture of the tower. Its acquisition was made possible by Elaine Sandman of Raleigh, who gave it in memory of her parents, Louis and Ethel Elden.

The last acquisition from the Steinhardt sale is a magnificent, over-the-top, gilded silver Torah Shield from 18th-century Germany. Read More »

A Hair-Raising Experience

Despite the frightful sound of this article’s title, the conservation treatment of the NCMA’s Portrait of Sir John Scott, which I finished in November, went quite smoothly. The painting is now refreshed and as near to its former glory as possible. But as frequently happens during a full restoration, little details of the original painting were uncovered that supply interesting insight—in this case, on the intriguing human infatuation with hair.

The conservation treatment removed centuries of accumulated dust and grime as well as layers of old varnish and previous restoration. Cleaning was followed by the application of new varnish and judicious retouching to cover up small paint losses and minor damage. Even the smallest original brushstroke and surviving nuance has become visible again: the rich fabric of the gold and black garments, the luster of the unusual wood-grain floor, the rosy flesh tones, and the sparkle in Sir John’s eyes.

Read More »

Film Still in Focus at NCMA

On the Town, (1949) Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Ann Miller, Betty Garrett. (98 min.)

This month I began my 14th year as the NCMA’s film curator. Unlike at other Triangle venues, my programming choices continue to be on film, not digital. Because the studios are strictly limiting access to titles on celluloid, every nearby non-multiplex screen—the Rialto, the Colony, the Carolina Theatre, the Chelsea—has had to convert (at a cost of $50,000 per screen or more) or die.

The Museum has been able to continue as the region’s only all-analog venue, thanks to two 1940s-era projectors that allow us access to studio and archive vintage prints that can only be screened with an honest-to-goodness projectionist (in our case, the peerless Doug Vuncannon, or one of his associates, Kevin Porter and Tina Efird) noting the change-over marks at the corner of the screen and switching seamlessly from one projector to the other. Film archives do not permit their prints to be cut and spliced together into large reels, as theaters without the luxury of a projectionist in the booth must do.  So while some theaters continue to show 35 mm, for example the Colony and the Carolina, they have access only to repertory prints, which can be cut and spliced.  Only the NCMA has the dual projector system that allows us to show archive prints.

Why does this matter? As with any art form, it is a matter of aesthetics. Audiophiles prefer the sound of vinyl to CDs. Lovers of the painted canvas do not think that even the most expensive printed reproduction compares to the original. For me, a film image on the screen is deeper, richer, with the slight flicker as cinema’s heartbeat. I still feel a brief moment of disappointment when the flat, bright digital image flashes on the screen of a commercial theater.

Digital restorations are becoming the norm for even classic films, and some viewers relish a crisp new print without the dust and scratches of celluloid. The sensitivity of the technicians performing this digital magic is crucial, though. The Carolina Theatre recently showed a series of digitally restored James Bond films, the tattered repertory prints having been permanently retired. Some may have marveled at the crisp new image. I, however, could have done without the glorious restoration of the glued edge of Sean Connery’s toupee.

This season we add a new archive to those institutions willing to lend us their valuable prints. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will be sending us a print of On the Town. To qualify for this honor, we had to fill out an extensive venue report on the condition of our projection facilities. The endorsement of the other archives from which we borrow—the Library of Congress, the UCLA Film Archive, the Museum of Modern Art Film Archive, the archive at the UNC School of the Arts, and various studio archives—was crucial. Being blacklisted by one venue for mishandling a print results in all the archives withdrawing their borrowing consent.

The time is swiftly approaching when the NCMA will need to convert to digital to be able to show current films and new restorations of classic films. But, as long as it is still an option, the Museum will screen films on film, as they were photographed and as they were meant to be experienced.

Laura Boyes is the NCMA’s film curator and the personality behind www.moviediva.com.

Arms for Art and Other Shenanigans

Earlier in the fall we removed from the American Galleries an imposing marble bust of John C. Calhoun. On my instructions Chief Conservator Bill Brown carefully removed a layer of acrylic paint, powdered talc, and wax that had been applied 20 years ago to mask unsightly yellowish stains covering much of the sculpture’s surface. Stripped of their makeup, the stern features of Calhoun are undeniably blemished. Rather than restore the cosmetic, we recently returned the bust to its pedestal in order to pose the question: what happened? How did this bust of pure white marble become so damaged?

The answer—only recently discovered—leads to an astonishing tale from the Civil War.

When Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina sat for this portrait bust in 1835, he was at the height of his power as the fiery “apostle of States’ Rights.” Following the convention of the time, sculptor Hiram Powers presents Calhoun in the timeless robes of a Roman statesman—in contrast to the drab contemporary garb of senators Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, standing at right. The artist modeled the portrait in clay, from which he made a mold and a plaster cast. The cast would serve as the template for future marble replicas.

By the late 1850s, Powers was long established in Florence, where his studio was a required destination for every American tourist. One visitor was Wharton Jackson Green, a North Carolina planter then on an extended honeymoon. In the studio Green spotted the plaster cast of the Calhoun bust. A devoted admirer of the late senator, Green immediately ordered a marble version for his plantation home in Warren County.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Green was hot to get into the fight and dreamed of being the colonel of his own regiment. However, to win the commission, he would need 600 rifles to equip his troops. To obtain the rifles from the state’s armory, he needed to curry favor with the governor. So Green hatched a scheme that centered on—I kid you not—the loudly publicized donation of the Calhoun bust to the State of North Carolina. As ludicrous as it sounds, Green’s plan worked. With fulsome oratory the bust of Calhoun was installed in the Senate Chamber of the State Capitol, and the next day a grateful governor authorized the release of the rifles. (Alas for Green, the governor died shortly afterward, and his successor gave the rifles to another aspiring colonel.)

Fast forward to April 1865. The Confederacy had collapsed. Union troops under Gen. Sherman had moved into Raleigh. During the first chaotic days of occupation, someone, almost certainly a rogue Union soldier, wandered through the ransacked Capitol and found opportunity to vent his anger. Not long afterward an army surgeon toured the building. As he walked into the Senate Chamber, something caught his eye:

On a shelf behind the speaker’s desk, was a marble bust, on the base of which in relief were the words “John C. Calhoun.” Poised on its crown was an inverted inkstand, whose contents had descended in copious streams over the face. The marks of a brush or cloth charged with the same fluid, had still more besmutted the features. Under the name, in pencil, was written this explanatory clause. “Yes, father of Secessionism.”

This final act of violation gives the story of this bust a peculiar symmetry. At the beginning of North Carolina’s rebellion, this marble bust of the “father of Secessionism” was received with high ceremony into the State Capitol. And at the very end of the rebellion, this same bust was just as ceremonially desecrated, the stern features of the implacable defender of slavery “besmutted”—and quite possibly deliberately blackfaced. Degrading a proud southerner to a minstrel character would have been an outrageously satisfying prank for a northern soldier exhausted by years of war.

Despite early efforts to clean away the ink, the effects of the long-ago vandalism remain. Instead of masking the damage, we have elected to reveal it in all its unsightly splendor, the better to tell a remarkable story. The full story of the Calhoun bust is told in the winter issue of Southern Cultures, available in many bookstores and news outlets and online, along with a related video.

Image:
Hiram Powers, John C. Calhoun (1782–1850), originally modeled 1835, carved 1859, marble, H. 29 ½ in., Presented to the State of North Carolina by Wharton Jackson Green, 1861; transferred to the North Carolina Museum of Art, 1956

Lieut. Col. Wharton J. Green, n.d., handcolored photograph (proof sheet from Clark, Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861–’65, vol. 4, 1901, opp. 243). North Carolina Museum of History, Raleigh (H.19XX.332.212).

J.A. Mowris, A History of the One Hundred and Seventeenth Regiment, N.Y. Volunteers, (Fourth Oneida), Hartford, 1866, 210. Full text.